Revenge is a significant theme in most Greek tragedies as it is perceived as a means of justice by the victimized protagonists. In Euripides’ ‘Medea’ (431 BC), revenge takes centre stage as it is foregrounded in an appallingly visible manner in the multiple murders committed by the eponymous female protagonist, Medea. This essay aims to present an argument on (i) the significance and construction of revenge in Greek drama, (ii) the motive for Medea’s revenge and, (iii) whether her acts of vengeance are justified.
Kurchaski (2013: 67) is of the opinion that a modern-day assessment of revenge in Greek drama would hardly label it as “pure”, as “in the moral world of modern narratives justice and vengeance are mutually exclusive.” This however contrasts when seen in the context of classical Greek philosophy and mythology, where “[v]engeance itself becomes the moral force driving the plot to its violent conclusion…to achieve an ethical katharsis”. The modern-day understanding of ‘catharsis’ is the process of finding relief and release from strong and repressed emotions like love, anger, jealously and hate. Aristotle in his Poetics/ De Poetica (335 BC), says catharsis is purification and purgation of emotion particularly, pity and fear. In ‘Medea, therefore, revenge, the theme of “venerable orthodoxy” (Kurchaski, 2013:67) in Classical Greece, is developed on a full-blown scale as we see Medea achieve her catharsis by purging her emotions of rage against her betrayal in marriage. Unlike, most Greek tragedies, where vengeance is often meted out by male protagonists and gods, in ‘Medea’, Euripides casts the heroin as the avenger and that too an extremely merciless and powerful one with powers of sorcery. Medea is also a descendant of the God Helios. This subhuman portrayal of Medea and her power to wreak havoc through vengeance leaves one with the question of whether she is the hero instead of the heroin of the play (Durham, 1984)
Burnett (1973:) discusses the portrayal of Medea as the vengeance drama hero/heroin in terms of Aristotle’s definition of the makings of a perfect tragedy which includes a personality of great stature coming to disaster because of a weakness in character. In ‘Medea’, however, the main protagonist, Medea begins from a point of villainy as she comes to Corinth having beguiled the daughters of Pileas to kill their father, betrayed her father, and having murdered her brother. Also, in ‘Medea’, the secondary player, Jason, is the one who falls to disaster instead of the main player, Medea, the heartless avenger. Euripides has thus moved Medea away from the ideal mould of the Aristotlean tragic hero to a one quite different. Sagel perhaps best explains this. He (1996:16) describes Medea’s character construction as having a parallel with the heroic ethos of Greek plays with regard to the extremity of her revenge. Segal refers to Bernard Knox’s excellent demonstration of Medea in which Knox says it “follows a pattern usually associated with the male protagonist, particularly the Sophoclean hero, who, like Ajax, cannot tolerate being shamed or dishonored…and reacts by taking a terrible revenge against his enemies, at great odds and with the risk of his own life”. In the case of Medea, she is recast into “a particularly feminine mode by using guile rather than open force” with those she considers her enemies. This very guile embodied in a woman (a wife and mother), the wolf in sheep’s skin, makes her by far the most monstrous heroin in Greek revenge plays; Euripides has indeed broken the mould in this distinctively different portrayal of Medea.
Kurcharski (2013: 83) rightly states that: “It is a truism to argue that the discourses of Greek tragedy are pervaded by the vindictive principle of “helping friends and harming enemies.” In ‘Medea’, friends are few and far between for Medea as she is a foreigner in Corinth but her enemy looms large in the form of her unfaithful and ungrateful husband, Jason. Jason becomes Medea’s prime enemy when he breaks his marriage oath to her by seeking to selfishly advance his political status by marrying Glauce, King Creon’s daughter. This hurtles Medea into a mad rage for revenge; the deep-rooted bitterness and fuming fury caused by her abject rejection by Jason can be seen in the lines, “I know indeed what evil I intend to do, But stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury, Fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils”. On hearing Medea’s words, the Chorus send a plea to God: “O heavenly light, hold her hand, Check her, and drive from out the house The bloody Fury raised by fiends of Hell”. But Medea continues by saying that “Anger, the spring of all life’s horror, masters [her] resolve’. Medea says she is “desperate for blood” as she is a woman grossly wronged by love which she had fought for to the point of betraying her father and killing her brother. Medea laments: “There is no bitterness to be compared/With that between two people who once loved”. Her heart betrayed in marriage leads her to plan to “turn three of [her] enemies/to corpses – father, daughter, and [her] husband.” Creon, getting wind of her thirst for revenge and being wary of her powers of sorcery exiles her but she buys time to execute her murderous plans.
Kurcharski (2013: 67) states that :“In Attic tragedy revenge quite frequently seems to be not the problem but its solution.” One may, however, equally frequently wonder about the exact motives behind this “solution.” Medea’s “solution” through revenge for catharsis therefore needs be assessed here. While Medea’s relentless anger is understandable, her deeds of barbaric revenge are unwarranted. Firstly, she was given a chance to live a better life when the King of Athens offered her refuge shortly after she was decreed into exile by Creon. Instead of taking up this offer of sanctuary, Medea seeks revenge as the “solution” to her betrayal. On the onset of the play, one does feel sympathy for Medea as she suffers the betrayal of a very callous husband who not only breaks the marriage oath but also is arrogant and belittles all her efforts in helping him procure the Golden fleece at the expense of being an exile from Colchis, her birthplace. However, “the motive for the act [of multiple premediated murders] and its intrinsic barbarity warrant our condemnation” (Reid & Gillett, 1997:19). The following paragraphs provide justifications for this.
Medea says: “Hate is a bottomless cup; I will pour and pour”. Bacon aptly states that: “Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out” (cited in Burnett, 1973:1). Medea has no law left in her feminine bosom, no milk of maternal kindness as her revenge reaches the climax of inhumanity when she kills her children. Medea betrays the trust of her innocent sons by choosing to commit filicide to fulfill her personal and private revenge. Her sons’ screams within the walls while she tries to stab them would have been heart-rending even for the Grecian audience of the past. The Chorus is confounded by Medea’s lack of maternal instincts: ‘Wretched woman, how then did you become rock or iron, you who killed with a doom from your own hands the fruit of children that you bore!’ Segal (1996: ) says: “Their language emphasizes the contrast between the creation of life by giving birth and its destruction by the hands of the same person. The agricultural metaphor for the two children as a ‘crop’ or ‘fruit’ of the earth suggests the destruction of the natural processes of fertility in nature and thus forcefully brings together Medea’s maternity and her murderousness.” But Medea has neither ears or heart for moral advice. Her intent to revenge is all-consuming.
Medea’s excuse that her children would suffer being scorned or killed if she were to leave them with Jason is a rather weak one; her very ranting in the beginning of the play where she wishes both her husband and children dead because of her pain of betrayal shows little care for her young sons. If she cared enough, she could have started a new life with her sons, away from all the cause of her distraught since she was given the opportunity to start afresh in Athens. But, she is blinded by her madness to see Jason left with nothing that her instincts of motherhood are compromised. Segal (1996: 18 ) states: “She uses the dead bodies of the children as a weapon to torture Jason, just as she used their living bodies as the instrument to kill Glauce and Creon”. “Medea herself implicitly raises the problem when she explains the workings of her poisonous drugs: ‘Everyone who touches the girl [Glauce] will perish miserably: with such drugs shall I anoint the gifts’ (Segal, 1996 : 18). This refers to the gifts of gold and garments covered in poison, that Medea sends to Glauce, tricking her into thinking that it is a peace offering. In doing this, both Glauce and her father, King of Creon die tragically, leaving Corinth without a ruler. When Medea says: ‘Everyone who touches”, Segal (1996:18) says that the generalization coldly includes innocent victims, a servant, or Jason, or even the children. Medea at this point does not care about innocent bystanders and her plans to use her children for evil show how she does not care about anyone apart from her own wounded heart.
After committing the series of heartless acts of revenge, she ends by declaring to Jason that “Yes, I can endure guilt, however horrible; the laughter of my enemies I will not endure”, implying that she is willing to be called a murderer as long as she knows she has won against her enemies. Segal (1996 :16) states that Medea’s “most powerful motive is to hurt Jason where he is most vulnerable and most dependent on her, the continuation of his line through his sons” and in order “[t]o obtain the fullest possible revenge Medea must also avoid giving her enemies the satisfaction of punishing her. She must escape while Jason suffers (1996:17-18). The play begins with us pitying Medea and being disgusted by a selfish and unfeeling Jason but the monstrosity that the play ends with, that is, the murder of the children, leave us appalled at the unnatural turn of events. We might still not pity Jason for the Chorus warns us of how the gods intervene in mortal aspirations and we are reminded of Jason’s greed but so is our initial pity for Medea completely vanquished.
In conclusion, the theme of revenge in ‘Medea’ is in keeping with an integral part of the plot of ancient Attic plays; acts of revenge take place in order to appease the troubled spirit or emotional state of a central character who has been unjustly treated; the acts of vengeance are also to restore justice and order for the general good. In ‘Medea’, we see that the portrayal of Medea as the vengeance heroin takes on different dimensions from other Greek heroes who do great deeds to achieve kleos or glory. In Medea’s case there is no kleos in her acts of revenge for they do not bring communal good or well-being to those under her influence; as a matter of fact she diabolically annihilates everything in her path that will deeply pain her abuser, Jason. Her revenge only satiates her own blood-thirstiness for private justice (as it only concerns her matrimonial security). Finally, of all the acts of revenge, Medea’s filicide expresses “the destruction of the most basic human bonds…it makes us suddenly strangers to our world and leaves us with the shock and pity at something irreplaceably lost in what we consider to be civilized life” (Segal, 1996:16)